Aristotle’s Challenge to Darwin

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The question of why there is life is so foundational to philosophy that it tragically almost seems cliché; nevertheless, it is a question that remains necessary to constructing a philosophical framework. At least as far back as Aristotle, this question has been closely tied with science, and, as one of the first people to do science as we know it today, Aristotle believed that accounting for the “why” of a thing is indispensable to any explanation that is worth having. However, in modern science there seems to be a fairly common mindset that natural selection has eradicated the need to account for the “why” of life. However, almost prophetically, Aristotle dealt with these objections to teleology, and despite his massive disadvantage in the information that was available to him, his philosophy would continue to be relevant for over a millennium and it continues to be relevant today. Centuries before Darwin even came about, Aristotle refuted the arguments of those who would attempt to use natural selection and necessity for subtracting cause and teleology from biology. Ultimately we will see that Aristotle’s perception of purpose in nature was not made outdated by advancements in science, but, to the contrary, advancements in science have revealed that teleology exists at a level that is far more complex than Aristotle had have ever imagined.

In describing his metaphysical system in Book 1 of Physics, Aristotle says that everything has four “causes” which are matter, shape, from whence something came, and to what end it is for (Physics 194b). The first cause is matter, and enables the second cause which is form or the “what-it-is” of something. For example, in explaining a particular statue a person may say that it is composed of bronze and what it is would be a statue in the shape of Charles Darwin. Aristotle does not stop here in accounting for his explanation of things because he proceeds to list the “how” of things as a cause of what it is. This is also known as the “efficient cause” of something. How did the statue of Charles Darwin come to be? It was made by a sculptor who formed copper into the shape of Charles Darwin through a process of statue making. Aristotle gives a few other examples of efficient causes such as an adviser causing an action, a father causing a child, and “in general a producer of the product” (Physics 194b). The fourth cause of what a thing is, according to Aristotle, is its teleology (or purpose). One of Aristotle’s examples of this cause was the act of walking (Physics 194b). If a person asked, “What is walking?” a perfectly valid response would be, “Walking is a means to staying healthy.” In other words, what something is and what it is for are practically synonymous. To Aristotle, the “why” of something is necessary for explaining something. These things together are what Aristotle deems necessary to properly have knowledge about anything.

To summarize this, let us return to the statue of Charles Darwin. In explaining this statue, Aristotle would say that the material cause of what this statue is would be the copper out of which it is made. The formal cause of what this statue is would be that it has the shape of a statue, and more specifically it has the shape of Charles Darwin. The third cause, the efficient cause, of the statue would be whoever made the material take the form of Charles Darwin. A possible final, or teleological, cause of what this statue is would be that it is a thing to commemorate Charles Darwin. To Aristotle, any explanation or account of something that does not adequately answer these four causes gives an imperfect knowledge of something.

In order to better understand these four causes, Aristotle grouped them up and discussed them in different ways. First, he states that the matter, the form, and the end of something are often grouped into one category since “…what something is and what it is for are one” (Physics 198a). He goes on to state that the “why” of something is accounted for “by referring to the matter, to the what-it-is, and to what first initiated the motion” (Physics 198a). This categorization would prove to be very important in his metaphysical system.

The significance of the categorization of causes starts to be seen when Aristotle proceeds to list two things that can act as efficient causes (which is necessary for answering “why”): “the first of all beings” (aka God) or the form of a thing since form is synonymous with the teleology of a thing (Physics 198a-198b). To Aristotle, unless something is done by God Himself, it is done for the sake of the purpose of a thing. This is because Aristotle thought that, “..the reason why is given by referring to the matter, to the what-it-is, and to what first initiated the motion” (Physics 198a), and for him it followed that, “Two sorts of principles initiate motion naturally One of these principles is not itself natural, since it has no principles of motion within itself; this is true of whatever initiates motion without itself being in motion… (i.e. the first of all beings) and also the what-it-is (i.e. the form), since this is what something is and what something is for. And so since natural processes are for something, this cause too must be shown” (Physics 198a-198b). Aristotle believed that even natural events happened “for something or because it is better” (Physics 198b). Aristotle’s entire metaphysical framework is thoroughly teleological in how it answers the question of “why.”

This teleological outlook lead Aristotle to reject an early form of natural selection. There were some who said that there was no cause of some natural things, but a mere necessity of them. The example Aristotle gives to counter this line of thinking is that some people said nature did not give creatures certain teeth because it would work towards the end of that creature, but because the creature grew those teeth by chance, and coincidentally it was advantageous for the creature. Therefore, the creature which had those teeth survived of necessity without any kind of teleological cause. Aristotle rejected this by saying, “…it is impossible for things to be like this. For these [teeth and other parts] and all natural things come to be as they do either always or usually, whereas no result of luck or chance comes to be either always or usually” (Physics 198b-199a). Aristotle concluded that since nature regularly gave to animals teeth that would be advantageous, nature must work teleologically for the good of things.

However, aboard the H.M.S. Beagle there would rise a contender to Aristotle who would, by many accounts, disprove Aristotle. In the 19th Century Charles Darwin proposed that natural selection is a sufficient means of accounting for the origin and diversity of life. In chapter 6 of On the Origin of Species Darwin would summarize his theory by saying, “…natural selection acts solely by the preservation of profitable modifications, each new form will tend in a fully-stocked country to take the place of, and finally to exterminate, its own less improved parent or other less-favoured forms with which it comes into competition” (On the Origin of Species, 172). If Darwin could have confronted Aristotle face to face, he would most likely have said something to the effect of, “it is no wonder you do not see disadvantageous traits, the creatures possessing them have died off.”  Contrary to the metaphysics of Aristotle, Darwin proposed that natural selection without any kind of divinity or teleological natural cause is sufficient to explain the “why” of life simply by necessity.

Darwin was not without his critics, and one cannot help but speculate that Aristotle would join their ranks pointing out that Darwin did not have so much as an efficient cause as to why creatures would have the traits they did. Amongst other reasons, Darwin was critiqued because his theory of natural selection accounted for trends, but it had no means of accounting for every single case. Even John F.W. Herschel, a man whom Darwin greatly admired, referred to natural selection as “the Law of higgledy piggledy.” Darwin could not so much as devise an “efficient cause” for why creatures have the traits that they do, let alone guarantee that disadvantageous traits would not keep resurfacing. The best solution Darwin could contrive was that, “some little light can apparently be thrown on the origin of these differences, chiefly through sexual selection of a particular kind…” (On the Origin of Species, 199). One can only imagine how happy Aristotle would be to point out that if nature is not itself actively working toward the good of creatures, then the traits of the creatures is left entirely to chance and there is no guarantee beyond statistical probability that the fittest will survive. Darwin could give no efficient cause, and Aristotle would still insist that in order to explain “why” creatures have the traits they do, there must be an account of efficient cause which must either be accounted for by God Himself or by the purpose of the thing.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection would soon be rescued by the discovery of genetic information. Science has demonstrated that genetic information is the “efficient cause” of the traits of all organisms. When paired with natural selection which eliminates disadvantageous genetic information from a population, an explanation of why creatures are born with advantageous traits is revealed. There does not seem to be any need for teleology, instead necessity can explain how natural selection has given the world an abundance of life.

This would be bittersweet for Aristotle if he knew about it. The discovery of genetic information vindicated him in that it demonstrated an efficient cause in natural selection, but it would appear as though he was entirely wrong about the necessity of teleological causes. Richard Dawkins is so confident in this that he says, “Natural selection not only explains the whole of life; it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance” (The God Delusion, 141). Not only was Aristotle wrong about teleology in biology, if Richard Dawkins is correct then science will eventually lead mankind to knowledge of all things and then man will see that there is nothing, whether God or nature, working for the good of things. All things can be accounted for by the necessity of how nature works.

At least, that story would hold until Richard Dawkins stops talking and Aristotle can ask yet again, “why?” Remember that for Aristotle, asking “why” entails giving reference to the efficient cause, and there are two things which can initiate the initial cause; either God or the end of the thing. If the modern theory of evolution is correct, then it can be explained how creatures receive their traits through genetic information, but Aristotle would be all too glad to point out that science has ignored one major question; “Why does genetic information give creatures physical traits?” When DNA is transcribed into mRNA, why does the RNA polymerase unwind the DNA as if it is programmed to do so? Why does it then, every time, attach base pairs of mRNA? Why does the mRNA travel to a ribosome every time as if it is programmed by nature (I dare not say by God) to do so? Why is it that tRNA then always proceeds to bind itself to the mRNA, and why is it that tRNA always carries an amino acid? It is as if these things were programmed to carry out these functions.

When DNA replicates itself why is it that DNA helicase “knows” to unwind the strand of DNA, and why does the DNA polymerase “know” to add base pairs every time? It seems as if in order for these things to happen so consistently nature has programmed each of these parts to know how to function in a manner which sustains life, which sounds an awful lot like teleology.

The response may be raised that only one self-replicating chemically reacting structure needed to form, and nature took care of the rest out of necessity by means of natural selection. Suppose for the sake of argument that this is true. Let’s pretend that the current story of RNA* being the self-replicating chemically-reacting structure that was necessary really did start the whole chain of events which lead to abiogenesis (even though science has not yet demonstrated it capable of doing so). The “how” of the puzzle would be accounted for, yet there would be no explanation as to why, after replicating for the first time, the next copies of RNA would keep replicating. If chance was the only mechanism causing the replication, then there is nothing which would cause the RNA to consistently replicate for the sake of its survival. The question of “why” would still need to be answered because if RNA truly did start everything by replicating and continuing to replicate then an account must be given for why it seems to be programmed to do so.

Aristotle asked why animals consistently have advantageous traits, and he saw teleology. Thanks to science we now know how animals receive their traits via genetic processes, but in asking why genetic processes consistently behave in a manner that is conducive to life even though there is no necessity for them to do so, teleology must again be recognized. William Paley, a lawyer and philosopher from the 18th Century, is often scorned for looking at the complexity of nature and its conduciveness to life, seeing an appearance of purpose and design, and invoking his infamous “watchmaker” as an explanation for all of it. However, the ridicule so often assigned to Paley, as well as Aristotle, for claiming teleology is entirely undeserved. Indeed science has shown that life does not need a watchmaker. Instead, modern science demonstrates that life needs a programmer capable of programming an entire universal factory of genetics which is capable of consistently perpetuating life. Perhaps someday we will know how genetics function in a way that enables them to consistently sustain life, but answering how this universal factory of genetics works will not satisfy the question of “why” because it will simply lead us to ask why these mechanisms by which genetics function are formatted in a way that keeps the universal genetic factory going. Perhaps someday we will even understand these mystery mechanisms, and eventually we will understand the mechanisms which enable those mechanisms, and the mechanisms which enable those mechanisms, and so forth possibly even to infinity unless at some point we recognize a final cause. Yet at any level of complexity there will continue to be the question of “why” which must be answered by what the end of something is (or by an act of God or some other agent (Obviously Aristotle’s “Unmoved-Mover” god wouldn’t work)) rather than simply “how” it works. Aristotle and Paley were not wrong for seeing the need to claim that there is teleology in things, to the contrary they did not have the necessary information to tell them how great the need for teleological explanations really are.

In the naturalist’s story, at one point the earth formed, it was conducive to the formation of certain chemicals which are essential to life. By chance there was one time where certain chemicals behaved  in a certain way that would beat the odds and let life begin. These primitive bio-chemical processes kept consistently happening in just the right way so that eventually some sort of self replicating structure would form. The question is then, “Why did these early processes keep happening in such a way that would perpetuate early life?’ If there was nothing that caused this behavior of these early chemical structures, then they were simply acting according to chance. However, mere chance cannot be the cause because chance could never produce such consistent behavior. We could say that chemicals behave in a certain way and that is just the way it is; however, this is hardly an explanation. There is a trend throughout nature that behavior that is not just purely random (if there is such a thing) is always caused by some sort of information. If a calculator had all of its essential components including batteries, and it was turned on, but it had no programming, then it would be utterly useless and do nothing let alone behave in a certain way.The same can go for anything that behaves on its own in a certain way. Do computers or machines of any sort program themselves upon being constructed? It would certainly be unprecedented. Why is it that bio-chemical components which would lead to the formation of self replicating RNA be any different? Would the most basic components magically come together and start acting in a certain way? Consistent behavior requires programming (or volition but that’s really not applicable), and the fact that the most basic structures of life are programmed in a certain way that is conducive to life looks an awful lot like a teleological problem for naturalists such as Dawkins.

In the long evolution of evolutionary theory, Aristotle’s teleology was never disposed of. Aristotle asked “why” creatures have the traits they do and concluded that nature itself acted for the good of them. Modern day science has not disposed of this question, it has only restated the question to ask, “Why is the genetic process programmed in such a way that sustains life?” Necessity itself is inadequate because there is nothing about the individual parts of the genetic process which makes them “need” to behave the way they do in order to ensure their own survival. Unwinding a strand of DNA holds no survival-related benefit for DNA helicase. “That is just the way things are” would also be an insufficient answer since there are no examples of anything programming itself to just behave in a certain way. Perhaps there will be a “how” provided to what programmed the genetic process, but just as the question “why” persisted when the efficient cause that is genetic information was discovered, the same question will still persist if and when the efficient cause of genetic processes is discovered, and it will continue to point to either God Himself, nature, or some other agent intentionally acting in the interest of something.

As long as mankind asks “why,” Aristotle will continue to show himself to be prophetic in saying that necessity, even when paired with natural selection, is insufficient in giving an answer. In order to account for the “why” of something, either God Himself or teleology must be invoked, and if teleology is chosen it must then be assumed that nature itself or some other agent is actively working for the good of something.

*Recently a synthetic enzyme named XNA was discovered, but it does not have much bearing on the arguments made. Even though XNA might somehow provide a deeper insight into the “how” of abiogenesis, as I have already stated, this articles concerns itself with “why” no matter what “how” we discover.

Works Cited

Darwin, Charles, and James T. Costa. The Annotated Origin: A Facsimile of the First Edition of On the Origin of Species. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2009. Print.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.

Reeve, C. D. C., and Patrick L. Miller. Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 2006. Print.

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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